Monday, June 25, 2012

Hakuoki Part 3: The Protagonist as Player Stand-In and Character Arcs

Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, is a visual novel game I became engrossed with and decided to dissect (with much love) so I could figure out why I liked it. After all, I’m a writer, and I want to see why the story works.

This week I’m going to discuss Chizuru as the player stand-in and who really gets character arcs in this game. You can see Parts 1 and 2 over here:

Hakuoki Part 1: Introducing the Visual Novel and Hakuoki Itself
Hakuoki Part 2: Handling Romance

Though romance is unavoidable in this game, it is still technically the subplot to the real story, which is about Chizuru’s search for her father and discovering her secret heritage. In the majority of paths through the game, her heritage drives most of the supernatural conflicts around her and all but the bonus sixth path end with a supernatural note.

Which makes me wish that Chizuru was a more active protagonist. Though the player can make decisions as her, she has to be protected by the Shinsengumi a lot. This is not entirely the fault of the story. Given the time period it’s unlikely that the daughter of a doctor would be trained in weapons to the degree she can fight on par with career soldiers. The real world Hajime Saito was considered among the best of the Shinsengumi, making it unlikely to impossible for Chizuru to be able to hold her own against any opponent powerful enough to physically threaten his fictional analog. Staying back and letting him protect her is often the only sensible thing to do.

And most of the time I’m fine with that. Since this is a visual novel this is one of the few games where being a non-combatant is viable, but there have been a few times where if I had been the outclassed combatant in Chizuru’s place, dammit, I would have done something instead of passively watching my loved one get mauled by the bad guy. Even if I had to scream and throw rocks at the villain because I didn’t have a weapon, it would at least give rise to the possibility of distracting him so my chosen guardian could find an opening.

To be fair, there are a few times where she will do just that, or intends to do just that before someone else intervenes, but they do not happen nearly often enough. Despite Chizuru’s supernatural heritage, and the powerful abilities displayed by her distant kin, she never completely embraces it and only takes limited advantage of the fact she has regenerative abilities that would make X-men’s Wolverine envious.

There is only one time on one story path when she directly throws herself into melee and takes a hit intended for her chosen guardian because she knows she can survive what he cannot. I was hoping that would turn out to be the one path where Chizuru learns to kick butt, but unfortunately nothing moves beyond that moment.

On the other paths the idea that Chizuru is useless in combat is hammered in just a bit too heavily, and since she is the narrator, it comes off as rather irritating. We already know she can’t fight well. She doesn’t have to keep bringing it up. She’s supposed to be the stand-in for the player, and the player doesn’t want to identify as being a mopey whiner with low self-esteem. (Or at least I don’t.)

I’m fine with her wanting to repay the Shinsengumi for their hospitality, so I don’t mind that she does some cooking and cleaning, or that there are multiple scenes with her serving tea. Given the time period and limited ways she can repay at all, this is acceptable. It’s just the “I’m useless” comments that bother me, and to be fair, the only time this came to the level of me wanting to slap her has been on the Hijikata route, and I suspect it may be to balance the fact that Hijikata is an incredible overachiever to the level that Chizuru has an inferiority complex when she’s around him.

Strangely enough, if the player is aggressive about getting Chizuru to draw her sword whenever the option is available, she will likely end up with scenes involving Hijikata, which is totally at odds with the way Chizuru keeps calling herself useless if the player actually goes down his path. In fact, if the player makes Chizuru put her foot down when dealing with Hijikata his respect for her goes up. So it’s terrible knowing that being pushy gets through to him, because if she’s not being pushy at the player’s direction and she’s left to her own devices, she’s whining about her inability to help him. If Hijikata’s route is done perfectly to get the most romance points possible this makes Chizuru come off as head-scratchingly passive-aggressive.

But most of the time she just comes off as a well-meaning, but shy teenage girl/young woman (age never established, but I figure she’s probably around 16 at the start and 20-21 by the end) who feels bad that she has a hard time repaying the Shinsengumi for their help, first in finding her father and second in protecting her from the demons who want to capture her. Depending on the path taken, her love interest will voluntarily give up his humanity and become a monster called a fury in order to protect her, which of course adds a certain amount of guilt and feeling that she needs to repay him somehow.

I’m fine when she angsts over that. It’s realistic, and I like that in those cases where the love interest transforms, it’s after the relationship is established and Chizuru already cares for him. (I’m generally not a fan of stories involving normal everyday humans dating vampires, werewolves, and other inhuman things that would, all things considered, be very scary boyfriends you couldn’t take home to your parents.)

But because Chizuru is the stand-in for the player, she doesn’t really change in the story, even though she is the character with the most at stake. When playing Saito’s route I had no idea how much he grew over the course of the story until I restarted the game to do my second playthrough and realized that I barely recognized the character I had happily fallen in love with at the end of my first.

It was largely through conversations with Saito that I came to understand why the Shinsengumi were such romantic figures to portray in fiction. I saw his work crumble around him as the Shinsengumi began to fall apart. As a man who only knew how to make a living with the sword, it was terrifying to imagine a world where swords were no longer needed. He tells that player that the sword is the soul of the warrior, which raises the question: If the sword is the soul of the warrior, what is a warrior without his sword?

Saito has to learn to survive independent of the Shinsengumi, to discover what will give his life meaning. This being a game with a strong romance element, Saito is prevented from seeking death in battle because Chizuru stays with him and he comes to realize how important she is to him and that he will protect her, not because someone told him, but because he loves her, thus making it clear for the first time that he is doing something whole-heartedly for himself and not because he is a good soldier following orders. It’s a satisfying character arc.

Chizuru, though it’s her heritage that drives the story, doesn’t have that. The villain is always defeated by her love interest, after which she will live happily with him for however long that may be. Depending on the story circumstances and individual player predilections, this may or may not be satisfying.

There is one ending where the end villain is someone very close to Chizuru and it would be terrible if she was forced to kill him (and in one of the few instances of her drawing her sword, she really does try!). In that ending I really appreciated the love interest making the kill for her, with him emphasizing both to her and their opponent that he was the one killing him, and their enemy had better not lay his death at her feet.

There is a different ending where the villain is fought because he ends up developing a rivalry with the love interest and he is no longer interested in Chizuru at all. Having her not participate in that instance was less satisfying since the villain’s focus changed to someone else, making the story no longer about her.

She makes a fine window through which the player can learn about history, particularly someone unfamiliar with period of Japanese history at all, but as a protagonist Chizuru doesn't protag much, meaning the player is much more likely to form an attachment to the other characters in the game, most likely the chosen love interest. And it's unfortunate. Because Chizuru has the potentially to be so much more.

She obviously has some guts, being willing to disguise herself as a boy to go search for her missing father. She supposedly knows how to use a sword well enough to defend herself (it's just she outclassed by anyone who matters). And she has a supernatural heritage, which if she tapped into she would probably be faster and stronger than most individuals in the Shinsengumi.

It's the last part that really bothers me, especially when she realizes (depending on story route) that her people have a true form that is much stronger than their human indentities. Chizuru has this form as well (only shown in one of the routes), but she never asks how to control it, how to bring it out, how to use it. In some story paths it's not possible, because the characters who could teach her do not reappear after she learns of the true form, but in others it should just be common sense to learn as much as she can about herself to protect what she cares about. It never crosses her mind.

If Chizuru had just a little more backbone, I probably would have loved her. As it was, she was just another personality to travel with, with the lion's share of my caring going to the members of the Shinsengumi. Going back to Dragon Age again, I would never name the Warden or Hawke as my favorite character, but I did feel invested in them as the player surrogate. It would have been nice if based on the choices the player made in Hakuoki that Chizuru's personality would adapt as well. She's the only unvoiced character, so she could have had a large number of dialogue variations without racheting up the voice acting budget.

That said, I really did enjoy the game, and if you want character arcs, the love interests have them. Chizuru's passivity doesn't make or break the game. Though it is her story, the most fascinating thing for me was the historical aspects. I found myself reading the Wikipedia entries for one battle or another, for the different members of the Shinsengumi, because I just could not get enough of an era that had become so fascinating to me, and there is no shortage of historical intrigue. The backdrop is wonderful and I'd love to read more stories set in this time period, and I'd love to see more of the Shinsengumi.

I know they're popular in fiction. I was first introduced to Hajime Saito through the Rurouni Kenshin anime where he serves as an anti-hero, though he's a much more sadistic character. The currently running Gintama uses parodies of some of the Shinsengumi members as part of its cast.

There are also other games in the Hakuoki franchise. Apparently it's quite popular in Japan, with a third TV season of an anime series based on the game starting, a couple movies planned for 2013, and even a stage play. I'm doubtful that the other games will make it to the US, because the target demographic would appear to be teenage girls and young woman, who are not used to be catered to as a gamer demographic in the US. There are tons of similar games in Japan, but here the US the existence, let alone the formation, of a such market is not a sure thing.

As it was, I needed to hear about it twice to decide to pick it up. Once was a review on RPGFan, which I periodically read, and that was what first brought the game to my attention. Then I forgot about it until I saw the fanmade video I posted back in my post about the popularity of the Bakumatsu in Japanese pop culture. If the video hadn't given me a second kick I probably would have passed this game by and I like video games.

I hope Hakuoki did well enough to justify bringing over other games like it, but considering that the Limited Edition is still for sale on Amazon four months after its release I don't think that's a good sign.